July 30, 2012: Stories from the Field. This guest post is by Team NOYA Fibers (Greg Goble, Steph Knisely, and Brenda Piloya), students in the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA Program at Colorado State University. Team NOYA traveled to Mongolia for 10 weeks this summer to work on a sustainable cashmere venture. Below they depict one particularly moving experience.
We had already run through this scenario a dozen times before – meet with nomadic herding families throughout the Toson Khulstai Natural Reserve in the Steppes of Eastern Mongolia, consume endless cups of milk tea and sun-dried yogurt chips while we ask our herder subjects to discuss difficulties and challenges, concerns and aspirations facing their herding lifestyles. But, this time was somehow different. This time, instead of trying to bridge a massive communication gap between ourselves and the nomadic community while utilizing the services of a relatively inexperienced interpreter, we found a greater sense of connection with the family. Instead of asking a number of follow-up questions to the herder in efforts to tease out an authentic response that deciphers the true health of his land and animals, the herder came forward with an honest and compelling soliloquy. He openly communicated his fears of the deteriorating condition of the grasslands, the weakening health of his animals, and the necessity for herders to work together to try to conserve their land and reverse the inevitable tides of overgrazing so that future generations of herders may be able to live out their lives carrying on the traditions and practices of nomadic culture.
After the herder finished speaking, we then proceeded to divulge greater detail into our intentions for working in Mongolia. We explained to the herder and his family that we had come to Mongolia to research the possibility of creating a market-based solution to overgrazing. We wanted to speak with herders to understand the trials and tribulations they faced throughout their herding lifestyles, and attempt to unite them under a common cause to help conserve their herding traditions and protect the environment that they depend on.
After notifying the herder of our intention to connect their product to international markets and have him be paid fair and consistent prices for his cashmere, his positive reaction was so genuine and sincere that despite the mile high barrier in verbal communication between us, we were able to fully understand his excitement through the joy and sheer delight in his eyes.
We uncovered that the true reason for his delight was because of the sense of empowerment that we could provide the herder. Never before had he even considered partnering with international companies to sell his products due to his restricted access to distribution channels. Previously, due to his limited market exposure, the herder was forced to sell his goods to traveling businessmen, or ‘changers’, who offered him below-market prices for his high quality products, which was a common occurrence amongst many of the herding families we met.
Overall, as a team we have met with close to 50 herding families, all of whom told a similar story of the difficulties facing their lands, lifestyles, and livelihoods. What we realized was that we are not simply trying to increase their annual income through the sale of their products to international markets, but we are providing herders a framework through which they can empower themselves by gaining leverage in the free market. Additionally, this helps conserve the grasslands that they depend upon for their livelihoods. And most importantly, we are providing the structure for herders to stop feeling like pawns. In fact, they too can make a difference in our world.